ALBANY, Ore. — Crews hired by USDA are being extra careful this year as they collect data from hazelnut orchards across Oregon for the annual crop forecast.
Last year, the agency’s National Agricultural Statistics Service overestimated Oregon’s hazelnut production by more than 25 percent, catching farmers and packers off guard when the harvest came up short.
While NASS hasn’t pinpointed exactly what went wrong in 2015, the rapidly changing landscape of Oregon’s hazelnut industry combined with an early maturing crop likely contributed to the skewed results, said Dave Losh, the agency’s state statistician.
“It was an abnormal year for a lot of reasons,” Losh said, noting that the early spring caused nuts to develop more quickly last year.
Farmers are planting new acreage of cultivars resistant to eastern filbert blight while older orchards are gradually succumbing to the fungal disease, he said.
These new orchards are being planted in various densities while older trees have been heavily pruned to slow the disease’s progression, further complicating the scenario, he said.
Until the mid-2000s, the main change that NASS had to track was the hazelnut industry’s declining acreage, said Gene Pierce, an agricultural statistician with the agency.
With new growers and trees now coming online, it’s more challenging for NASS to determine the size of the “universe” it uses for statistical analysis, Pierce said.
For now, however, NASS is focused on ensuring its crews are accurately following the model for collecting data, rather than trying to change the model itself, said Chris Mertz, the agency’s regional director for the Northwest.
“Before we make any huge tweaks, we want to make sure we’re covering all of our bases,” he said.
The annual forecast is conducted by NASS but the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board covers the $93,000 cost.
Although NASS forecast that Oregon would produce 39,000 tons of hazelnuts last year — 8,000 tons more than were actually harvested — many farmers considered the estimate conservative at the time, said Larry George, president of the George Packing Co.
A survey of farmers conducted by George Packing last year pegged their average forecast at 41,000 tons, with one estimate of 35,000 tons considered a far outlier, he said.
“The trees looked loaded last year. It looked like a good crop,” George said.
Trees may have appeared to be brimming with hazenuts, but many had literally shrunk in size as eastern filbert blight killed their upper branches, he said.
The impact of blight is difficult to account for, since the roughly hazelnut 700 farmers in Oregon have 700 unique methods of fighting the disease, George said.
“How do you poll something that has no consistency?” he said.
Growers are reluctant to remove blight-infested orchards due to high prices in recent years, but the old orchards are nonetheless quickly losing productivity, said Mike McDaniel, proprietor of Pacific Agricultural Survey, a geographical data firm that’s assisting NASS.
“The new wave coming online is not quite compensating for the loss of mature production,” McDaniel said.
Confidence about the size of the hazelnut crop is necessary for hazelnut packers who need to know how much product they’ll be able to offer buyers, said Jeff Fox, CEO of the Hazelnut Growers of Oregon cooperative.
“It’s absolutely essential for the marketing of this crop,” he said.
Uncertainty can lead to disruption, as occurred last year when the hazelnut industry realized it had a short crop, Fox said.
Packers weren’t able to send as many in-shell hazelnuts to China — a major consumer — as expected because they didn’t want to disappoint their kernel customers, he said.
“We had to pump the brakes pretty hard once we figured out the crop wasn’t there,” he said.